27 December 2007

Tadeusz Borowski, This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, 1959

Had Borowski not commited suicide at the age of twenty-nine it is thought he would have gone on to become one of Poland’s truly great writers. The defining two years of his life were spent in Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1943 and 1945, a period which undoubtedly coloured his perception of humanity for his remaining six years and which found an outlet in the short amount of Holocaust fiction which he produced, gathered here in this short, valuable collection. These are tales based on true happenings in Auschwitz but told with a storytelling licence that makes no bid for literary greatness or emotive overkill, yet it is just this act of ‘telling it like it is’ that gives This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen its impact.

The distinguishing thing about concentration camp life, as Borowski tells it, is that there is no clearly defined line between victims and perpetrators. Camp inmates act with frequent self-interested cruelty to each other, something that Borowski resigned himself to accepting is a trait of anyone whose back is against the wall and whose life is under threat; the Nazis, however, do reserve both the more gratuitous and ‘professional’ acts of inhumanity for themselves and appear to relish in them, there being little that is identifiably human about them, as we encounter them here. This short book seems to offer a microcosm of one extreme of human experience that does benefit from some occasional optimistic colouring and black humour, though amongst the almost everyday telling there are some particularly memorable and shocking sequences, delivered deadpan and with surprisingly little anger or cynicism. This collection deserves its ‘classic’ status.   PY

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